I had what I now know to be a panic attack when I was eight years old. We were holidaying in North Wales and were taking a picnic at the ruined Rhuddlan Castle, whose mighty mediaeval stone keep had seen many a year and much turmoil. Mother was pregnant and just wanted to sit, Dad sat beside her on the grass by the empty moat, and Veronica was in her trolley, which left room for me and my brother to race madly round the walls. I knew about castles, knights and men at arms, for I had seen pictures of them in books,and so I ran not just with my body, but with my imagination. Taking a cut through the ancient keep, in which I was the only living person. I was suddenly struck with terror. I imagined that I was being watched, that hundreds of eyes were staring down at me from the walls, I imagined men at arms gazing down from the ruined ramparts. For a moment I stood transfixed and then fled out to the safety of my parents.
I can still remember clearly the moment of terror fifty nine years ago, and can find a parallel in Seamus Heaney's poem, Death of a Naturalist when at six he realized the terror that lurks in nature. I attribute the panic attack to the fact that I was growing up and becoming aware of the vastness of time and of the eons that have gone before me, peopled by folk that I can never know. Being a small child on his own surrounded by massive, ancient walls caused a surge of fear generated by a sense of vulnerability.
Never since have I had such a panic attack in ruins. Some of them, like the Roman Forum or Pompeii are so busy that you don't have the solitude needed for imaginative engagement.But when you visit some ruins you have time to pause and reflect. I have on more than one occasion visited the ruined monastery on Llandwn Island off Anglesey, a tidal isle that can be accessed on foot. Standing in the ruined church which is now filled with nettles and looking up through the vanished roof to the sky above I cannot be anything else but sad for what has been lost, for how much that was good that disappeared at the Reformation.
The poet in me [we all have some poetry in us] allied with the gardener when I saw the nettles, for I know that they only grow in fertile soil. So maybe,I mused, the monastery is still fertile for us today, preserving some of the spirituality of the place for us to savour in our age for a brief moment, sparkles from the light of a receding past,a reminder that the modern age has its serious deficiencies.